You can call the 33rd annual Country Fest a three-day country music and camping party. But while the event officially runs Thursday through Saturday, organizers are packing in enough music to rival a festival that runs longer than that.
In fact, fans who have tickets for the entirety of Country Fest can enjoy an extra day of music during a kickoff party Wednesday at the grounds. The philosophy behind the added acts was explained by Megan Vruwink, director of marketing and sponsorships for Chippewa Valley Music Festivals, which presents Country Fest as well as Rock Fest in July.
“We condensed from a four-day festival to a three-day festival after listening to feedback from our fans,” she said of the switch, which began last year. So to provide people with a little extra music in that shorter time span, their Wednesday kickoff event featured the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which drew “a huge crowd,” she said.
This year they are featuring two national acts Wednesday on the Crossroads Stage: up and coming performer Carlton Anderson and headliner BlackHawk, a veteran band known for songs such as “Goodbye Says It All,” “I’m Not Strong Enough to Say No” and “Like There Ain’t No Yesterday.”
“They are legends in the country music industry, and they have a lot of fun songs,” Vruwink said. “It’s going to start the party off right.”
The main stage lineup features three of the biggest names in country music: Little Big Town on Thursday, Luke Bryan on Friday and Sugarland on Saturday.
Little Big Town, known for four-part vocal harmonies, has been regularly winning awards from the Academy of Country Music, the Country Music Association and the Grammys, among other organizations. Their No. 1 singles include “Pontoon,” “Girl Crush” and “Better Man.”
Of Bryan, Vruwink noted, “Everybody can probably name songs right off the top of their head.” And those who can’t would probably recognize him as a judge on “American Idol” and from appearances on major awards shows. His top-selling hits include “Drunk on You,” “I Don’t Want This Night to End” and “Crash My Party.”
The last time Bryan performed at Country Fest his career was just starting its upward momentum.
“So now getting him to be a headliner on Friday night is going to be neat to see,” Vruwink said.
The country duo Sugarland got back together in 2017 after a hiatus that began in 2012.
“Within the past year they have done some new music, had some new songs come out,” Vruwink said.
Their popular tunes include “Something More,” “Want To” and “Stay.”
Besides the nights’ closers, Vruwink also mentioned stars taking the stage right before them.
That would be Justin Moore on Thursday, Cole Swindell on Friday and Brett Young on Saturday.
“All of them are coming out with new music, which is exciting,” Vruwink said.
Keeping the hits rolling
The Crossroads Stage provides another way Country Fest offers more music for the money: That setting, up the hill from the main stage, will feature nationally known acts as well. The schedule features the following:
• A cappella group Home Free on Thursday night.
“They do covers of country songs as well as across all genres,” Vruwink said.
• Lauren Alaina on Friday night.
“Last year was a huge breakout year for her,” she said.
• Phil Vassar on Saturday.
“He’s got those feel-good tunes,” Vruwink said. “I know he’s a fan favorite.”
Another performer who brings a growing country music profile to the Crossroads Stage is Ashley McBryde. She played the main stage last year.
“She’s excited to play the Crossroads Stage, I know,” Vruwink said. “It’s just a different setting. You get to be a little closer to the fans.”
In the past year McBryde has won numerous accolades for “Girl Going Nowhere,” her major label debut, including a Grammy nomination and a place on best album of 2018 lists by publications such as the New York Times and Esquire magazine.
One attribute of the Crossroads Stage is accessibility to the fans.
“In our minds that stage gives anybody an opportunity to get up close with the artists without having to pay a bigger ticket price or paying for a different experience,” Vruwink said.
The whole idea of featuring major acts on the Crossroads Stage later in the evening, she added, “is so we can get more big-name talent into the weekend so people can get the best value for the weekend that they’re coming.”
Some of those attendees, Vruwink continued, may not travel a lot and so are especially excited about this getaway.
“We know for a lot of fans this is the one vacation they take the entire year,” she said. “They will take the whole week off to come and camp and enjoy country music, hang out with their friends and make these amazing memories, and we want to create a really great experience overall.”
This year the Crossroads Stage will look “a little bit different,” she said, because organizers made some changes after listening to feedback from the audience.
With Country Fest being around for more than three decades, organizers still try to “reinvent the experience” for fans, Vruwink said. One way they’ll do that is with a new luxury seating deck they call the Lure Lock Top Tier Lounge. As she explained, the structure stands 8 feet off the ground and features tiered seating levels. It’s in front of radio row and south of the general admission handicap seating area.
“Think of it like a box seat at a sporting event,” Vruwink said.
Each section, which seats six people, has a “great view of the stage,” she said, as well as a roof.
Amenities include lounge seating with cushions and coffee tables in each 6-person section. It includes all-you-can-eat “high-end” hors d’oeuvres – “We’re not just talking cheese and crackers here,” Vruwink said – VIP parking, private bathrooms and all-you can drink beverages including beer, liquor, bottled water iced tea and soft drinks.
Each package includes six three-day concert admission passes broken down into individual days.
Those who could potentially be interested in the lounge experiences, Vruwink said, could include smaller businesses that want to entertain their clients or for family reunions or friends getting together.
“You say, ‘OK, we have 18 tickets total we can split,’” Vruwink said. “‘Who wants to go Thursday, who wants to go Friday, who wants to go Saturday?’”
That is in addition to other entrance options, including general admission, reserved lawn, VIP, pit passes, VIP campsites and glamping, which is an industry term that’s short for “glamorous camping.” It includes tents that are climate controlled, with bedding and a communal space in those campgrounds where people can relax in the shade.
“For people that don’t like camping or don’t want to haul an RV or set up a tent, it’s turnkey,” Vruwink said. “They pull up to the gate, they pull up to their glamping site and everything is already all set up.”
The festival has three major camping areas: the south campground, north campground and west campground. In 2018 the festival opened up the west campground, which had been used for overflow camping but aside from that purpose hadn’t been opened in more than 10 years.
“So we will be in the west campground this year, which might look new to some of our newer fans,” she said. The campground is located directly west of the north campground, she said, and is a short walk to the concert grounds and has amenities such as the showers and a store.
A newer attraction at Country Fest that’s being expanded this year is a site that allows fans to take a break from the louder festivities.
Northern Lights, which debuted in 2018, Vruwink said, is a wooded walking trail located just off the north campgrounds.
“So it is kind of like a little slice of heaven, to be honest with you, to walk back there, and it’s a nice green lush forest and there’s a mulched trail that people can walk through,” she said. “When they walk back there they’ll see fun art installations and photo ops. It’s a good escape if people are feeling like, ‘You know what, I really want to enjoy my vacation, I want to get away from my campsite.’”
But chances are they won’t want to miss too much of the music.